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Headed for derailment

Mumbai’s rail commuters make up 55 per cent of the country’s total commuter train traffic. And ahead of the election, these 6.4 million voters are demanding that conditions be improved. Sweta Ramanujan-Dixit reports.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2009 23:45 IST
Sweta Ramanujan-Dixit

You know something’s really wrong in Mumbai when the local trains stop plying.

The lifeline of Maharashtra's capital, you can count the number of times this has happened in the last five years — there was the time a 24-hour deluge coupled with an unusually high tide in the Arabian Sea had most of the city under 3 to 6 feet of water in 2005, or when a series of seven blasts ripped through local trains the following year.

And, this January, when hundreds gathered on the tracks of one of the most densely crowded suburban rail networks in the world, demanding more services and better trains.

The overcrowding is a problem that binds most of suburban Mumbai’s residents.

Whether you’re a stockbroker or diamond trader, a housewife, college student or teacher, if you live more than 10 kilometres from your workplace, you have to take a train.

Mumbai’s 6.4 million suburban rail commuters make up over 55 per cent of total rail passenger traffic in the country — but there is no allocation for them in the rail budget, other than some funds set aside for a local transport project.

Every day, about 10 people fall to their deaths as a growing population tries to squeeze itself onto trains designed in the first half of the last century — during peak hours, about 4,700 passengers currently travel in a nine-car rake meant to hold only 1,700.

With 15 people per sq metre in rush hour, the commuters don’t even expect a comfortable journey anymore.

Just a safe one.

And this election, once again, that’s what they’re demanding.

“The last two rail budgets had no special packages for Mumbai’s suburban passengers. Old promises were not kept,” says Shailesh Goyal, member of the Zonal Railway Users’ Consultative Committee. “We hope the new government pays more attention to Mumbai.”

“The railways did finally introduce new trains last year and we thought we would finally be able to travel safely, if not comfortably,” says Deepak Gandhi, a 74-year-old Vile Parle-based businessman who has been travelling by train for 30 years. “But the timetable has not been amended to deal with the super-crush at suburban stations during rush hour.”

As chairman of the Mumbai Suburban Passengers’ Association, Gandhi said he wrote several letters to MPs and local politicians. “All of them promised to help,” says Gandhi. “But nothing happened. They don't really care.”

The politicians usually step in only after the misery has turned to rage. In January, minutes after the protests began, scores of little flags of the Shiv Sena and the BJP were visible among the angry crowd.

A week later, the parties announced a rally in support of the commuters. Few attended.

Rail commuters are a significant votebank, a fact actor and Member of Parliament Govinda realised when he won against BJP veteran Ram Naik in the Mumbai North constituency.

His only real achievement has been getting a Mumbai-Delhi Express train to halt at Borivli, a rail junction in the heart of the suburbs. Earlier, the train halted only in south Mumbai.

For the daily commuters, though, the only solution in sight is the much-touted, World Bank-funded Metro Rail.

But many fear it has raised expectations it will never be able to meet. “For one thing, it’s way too expensive for the average, middle-class working Joe,” says bank employee and daily rail commuter Madhvi Padgaonkar (43). “The government should just focus on getting more trains. And cleaning up the existing ones. There are cockroaches and bugs.”